Do radio stations use digitized music?
November 13, 2006 10:27 PM   Subscribe

How do commercial radio stations organize or manage their music media? When a DJ puts on a song, what format is it in, and how is it retrieved?

I heard a great story about the music library in a college radio station in the pre-CD days, how there were index cards attached to the front of the LP sleeve with comments about which tracks were suitable for whatever, that had useful lengths and so on.

It made me wonder in the post-CD age, what a commercial station (i.e., one with a budget) might do. If a DJ (or a producer or engineer?) plays a song, is s/he actually putting a CD in a player and hitting play? [I know many stations are all pre-recorded anyway, and I guess I'd want to focus away from that]...Or are they calling up songs in some digital music database where they can search quickly on title/length/artist as needs be?

I know they create playlists, but they also take requests, and even if they take those non-live (and play 'em back to sound live) they are still rapidly getting some tracks ready.

But enough me theorizing; the question is - how does this work?
posted by stevil to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's pretty much all digitised these days and called up from a database. The exceptions are cases when tracks are on vinyl or very rarely played. An interesting example of this at work is BBC Radio 1's Ten Hour Takeover, which shows tracks being looked up, the servers and the archive of actual CDs and records. For yer ClearChannel stations, there's probably no need to go to original media.
posted by holgate at 11:29 PM on November 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

(disclaimer: I have had some radio experience but it has been a very long time, and most of it was non-commercial, but not all.)

"I heard a great story about the music library in a college radio station in the pre-CD days, how there were index cards attached to the front of the LP sleeve with comments about which tracks were suitable for whatever, that had useful lengths and so on. "

This is true. It was kind of neat to pull a record out of the library and read the comments that folks had left. They also used to either scratch out or cover with Liquid Paper the tracks that we absolutely, positively, should never play. (The ones with dirty words and such.) Just to make sure we wouldn't "accidentally" play them.

Regarding commercial stations, my understanding is that most of them don't really play requests except in special programs. When you hear them play a user's request call, it's for a song that would have been played anyway. It makes the station sound interactive when it really isn't.

But... I'm not working at a commercial station now, so someone who is can correct me if I am wrong. The last station I was at was a semi-commercial station during the vinyl to cd transition stage, and so we had music on CD, mostly on vinyl, and commercials and such were on carts (tapes, sort of like 8 tracks). So we were actually playing the records and CDs, cueing them up ourselves. All the albums were stored alphabetically except for the currents which were in a shelf inside the studio. Cueing CDs was a lot faster than cueing vinyl, but less tactile and fun, I thought. Before that period, some stations were playing all their music on carts. I interned at a top 40 AM station where every single song was on a cart, and the only time they needed to drag out the turntable was for American Top 40 each week, which came on vinyl.

Nowdays my guess is that a lot of stations probably do it all digitally; I certainly would if I were running a commercial station now. (I have a Live365 station and of course that's digital.)
posted by litlnemo at 11:40 PM on November 13, 2006

Here's a May 2006 article from Radio Magazine that briefly discusses station automation, and has a list of links to lots of vendors of commercial systems. Perusing the vendor sites should be hugely educational.

DRS Systemtechnik and Register Data Systems are two vendors systems I've seen in action. 95% of U.S. FM stations are digitally programmed and controlled now, because it is both much cheaper and much more reliable than the older CD and cart systems ever were. Almost everybody produces content (commercials, announcements, weather, traffic, and news) now digitally too, and digital control provides incontrovertible "proof of air" for ad billing, and for ASCAP and BMI compliance.
posted by paulsc at 12:20 AM on November 14, 2006

This, to me, is one of the great, enduring reasons to support public radio ...

As I write this, I'm sitting in the DJ chair at my station, WFPK in Louisville, KY. We've got three CD players,a turntable, and a room full of CDs and vinyl. Most of them have sticky notes on them with thoughts on specific tracks.

Now, we do schedule our music - I've got a printout telling me what songs to play each hour, and that probably comprises 80-90% of the hour, with the balance being "jock's picks." So even public radio is far from freeform - there is method to the madness. But we've intentionally resisted the use of digital music files and automation, even though we have all of the tools necessary to do it.
posted by jbickers at 3:36 AM on November 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I worked in radio from 1990-1993 (100KW country station in Anadarko, Oklahoma). We first transitioned from vinyl to CD (two turntables and two CD players that I could trigger from the "board"), then we got rid of the turntables.

One of the last things I did before I went on to college was assist with the move to a "library" (a 42U rack full of 18-disc CD changers) where a computer controlled the track retreival and all the commercials were on a 600M hard drive hanging off a 386 system. It was nice to not have to manually change CDs for every song.

Nowdays, I suspect that EVERYTHING comes off a hard drive - I couldn't imagine that physical CDs are still used past the "CD arrives, CD gets turned into a MP3" stage.

Of course, this all depends on each individual station..
posted by mrbill at 5:00 AM on November 14, 2006

As jbickers said, most stations have what they're going to play planned out days or even weeks in advance - we had a music scheduling program that (even in '93) still ran on a TRS-80 Model II; we'd typically get a weeks' worth of programming printed out at a time.

We had the occasional "all request lunch hour", etc, but very little deviance from the pre-determined song list was allowed. I'd typically get an entire hour's worth of songs out and have the CDs stacked up in order in front of me.

We didn't use normal "off the shelf" CDs; we had a subscription service that sent us 2-3 CDs a week with 20-25 tracks of "whats new".
posted by mrbill at 5:03 AM on November 14, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for all the interesting and helpful info.
posted by stevil at 10:37 AM on November 14, 2006

Ooo, squarely on my turf at last.

There are two kinds of programme on (99% of) music-driven commercial radio - the normal daytime stuff, and the evening/night-time "specialist music" shows. I understand that in the US the latter of these is becoming very rare, but it doesn't affect the answer.

The main means of playing music on a commercial station (or, outside the US, any properly funded noncommercial station as well) is through the use of a playout computer. These are also known as 'automation systems'.

As the name suggests, these are capable of running the output of a station without anyone being present. All the studio systems I've ever seen have three settings, though: automatic (used when there's nobody home), live-assist (it loads the next song in the schedule into memory ready for the presenter to hit the big green 'START' button once she's done talking) and manual (usually the same but sometimes without the prebuffering).

There'll be music, ads and -- if applicable -- hard-time-start events like the one which fires the news jingle and opens the satellite feed at xx:59:50, all pre-scheduled into the computer. What songs are on the list will be picked according to whoever organises that station's music playlist (a head of music or a programming manager, maybe, or someone from the network centre if you're unlucky).

On a goose-step-formatted station (*cough* Clear Channel), a presenter may not alter the order of these events, nor even decide her own words to speak - they're written down for her to recite at the appointed time. If the owner's really trying to save money, they'll use the 'voice tracking' feature of the playout systems and have someone read the links into the computer all at once - that way you can do a five-hour programme in 60 minutes and let the playout computer go into Automatic. Needless to say, that programme will suck, but that's how it works (and almost everybody does this for overnights since people cost money and if we're going to round to the nearest whole number, there's nobody listening).

A better station will still have everything scheduled, but more as a backup. A presenter would be able to change the running order, replace some of the music with her own choices, but still be able to spend most of her brain power thinking of interesting things to say instead of scrabbling around looking for the song-after-next for 3'30". This is a great way to use the tech - by making the music something you can do in a few seconds, you're free to give more thought to the bits in between. And the bits in between really are much better when the computers are there to assist.

[Plus, you can start 'Around the World' by Daft Punk at nearly seven minutes to the hour, chuck the system into Automatic, and let it fire the news, jingles, and ads on its own and garner for yourself ten whole minutes to get to the bathroom/kitchen/smoking area and back again in time.]

On a specialist programme, or any prog on a station where the presenter (US translation: DJ/talent) is allowed to play her own choice of music, she'll still be using the studio computer systems. But she'll also play tracks that are not on those systems - in which case it'll probably be a CD, or (if it's dance music) may well be on vinyl.

The scheduling of ads, songs and all that is usually done outside the realm of the actual playout system. By far the most popular scheduler in the world is a product called Selector sold by RCS, though others exist.

RCS also makes a playout system called RCS Master Control which is wildly popular in the US, I understand. It's very nice to use. The automation market is much more diverse though - and quite international. Walk into an air studio and you may also see Dalet, Myriad, something from dMarc (who are now owned by Google, and who have two entirely seperate software suites in the same space), the unusual-because-it-uses-BeOS Tunetracker, and a bewildering array of other alternatives. Free software fans and cheapskates will be interested in Rivendell, which is a stunning piece of work.

One thing they almost always have in common is the way the music is stored: either raw PCM or (more usually) with MP2 compression. MP3's frowned upon because the effects of straining it through an FM compressor can be bizarre and unpredictable. Where MP3 *is* used, there'll be an outright ban on anything under 192kbps, and a strong preference for 384kbps.

Oh, and stations get new stuff either on CD from pluggers or (for larger outfits and/or more mainstream music) one of the new digital music distribution services, where stuff either arrives by FTP or by satellite download.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head.
posted by genghis at 11:16 AM on November 14, 2006 [7 favorites]

genghis, that is an awesome answer. :)
posted by litlnemo at 5:03 PM on November 14, 2006

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